INTERVIEW BY CHRIS SUAREZ
Over the last few years, a number of more DIY-oriented music festivals have started in Virginia. Richmond has Stay Sweet Fest, Harrisonburg has had Macrock for almost 17 years, and even Blacksburg has its own festival, I’ve Got Brains!
While Northern Virginia has had Fest Too the last two years, it’s mostly stayed relatively low-key. That’s not to say that Northern Virginia has an inferior scene to all the towns previously mentioned, but instead, head festival coordinator Dan ABH (If you’ve known Dan or A Bitter Hello…, which is the name of the studio and pseudo-label Dan still runs, you’re familiar how that’s his assumed name everywhere and that’s what everyone calls him) says Fest Too is not so much a music festival, but instead, a celebration of the DIY arts and music community in the Virginia, DC, and Maryland area.
Fest Too will be held June 26th through 28th this year and will feature over 40 bands over the course of three days. In addition to all the bands, the festival will include workshops and free food for all attendees.
The impetus for the festival stems from Dan ABH’s association with Convergence at Fair-Park Baptist Church. After years of booking house shows and at The Murky Upstairs, a former venue in Arlington, Dan began booking at The Lab, which is an art space right behind the main worship facility of Convergence.
Despite the modest means by which the festival is organized, Dan ABH claims this year’s iteration of the festival will be the biggest and best yet.
What is Fest Too? How did it first get started?
Basically, it’s a DIT (Do-It-Together) festival. It’s geared toward DMV artists, activists and the community, as a whole. Basically, it’s a celebration of everything that we have done for the year. As we’ve moved on through Fest Too over the years, it seems the Northern Virginia scene has grown since the first Fest Too and The Lab is much bigger.
It started with a simple idea. I was living in McLean at the time, and we were doing some shows at The Lab while I was volunteering here in 2009. I came in because I was looking for a new space to do shows. I was doing shows at The Murky Upstairs, and I was booking house shows around the NOVA area and trying to promote newer and younger bands. I’ve been doing that for almost a decade now in addition to recording bands and putting it out for free.
I was living at the ABH house and working with Nathan Brown from OKLAHOMA CAR CRASH. He had an idea of doing a big, all-day show at my house. What he didn’t know was that my house was getting foreclosed, and I didn’t say anything. I was stressing out and told him after a while I wasn’t sure if I could do it at my house right now. I thought about it, and started thinking, ‘If we’re going to do a festival, let’s do it at The Lab. If we’re going to do a festival, let’s make it big. Let’s get all the bands and our friends and do a real festival.’
Alex Heinz was brought in to help organize the show. At the time, Alex was booking house shows around here and at my house. Nathan also knew some people, so the whole idea came about in my kitchen. We were talking about ideas and Alex and Nathan were thinking we’d have about 8 or 9 bands, but I said, ‘fuck that, let’s do 30 bands’ I think they were scratching their heads at the time, I don’t think they thought we could do it, but we did.
The name Fest Too was a joke at first. At the time, the No Idea Records’ Fest 11 or 12 was coming up in Gainesville, FL. We made a joke saying, ‘let’s call it Fest Two.’ Alex wrote it out and spelled it ‘Too.’ We thought it was really funny so it stuck.
We started going more into the ethics of the festival and started thinking, ‘Why don’t we have workshops at this thing, or an art exhibit? Why don’t we celebrate everyone who has a sustainable kind of life with DIT or DIY ethics?’ We wanted photographers, artists, activists, and workshop coordinators. We did it our first year at The Lab, and that’s how it started.
For year two, we wanted to expand so we also used the building across the street. We were able to do because of Convergence Church, who owns The Lab and its main building across the street. They’re the most wonderful people and completely support what we’re doing. They support the bands, me, the studio, Fest Too, and The Lab All Ages program. It’s all really run under Convergence.
Fest Too is run under The Lab All Ages, which I coordinate for the church. It has showcases, studio space, and mentorships. We have the collective now of younger and emerging promoters who are learning and training how to run more sophisticated, safer, and more organized DIY shows.
I feel like NOVA gets overlooked sometimes, it used to, but touring bands and others want to play Alexandria. It’s not in DC, but it seems that some people think it’s harder to book in DC and there are less venues or house spaces. It’s not cliquey, but it seems to have its own thing going on.
A lot of the shows here at The Lab have been kind of “Frankenstein-y” because it’s all over the place. We don’t just do all punk or hardcore shows. We really mix the genres; it gets all over the place. We have bluegrass, DC hardcore, pop punk, acoustic, indie; it’s just super-eclectic. It’s a good snapshot of our community.
How did you first get involved with booking and recording bands?
For me, my ethics were set in place in early 2005. I came out to The Lab to help younger bands. I wanted to record them and help them get shows. I was also a young, aspiring DIY producer and sound engineer. What happened was I met this band, BLACK POWDER FUZZBOX. Through them, I met their friends and started recording their bands like THE MISSPOKEN, REBECCA VS. MEXICO, SPOONFUL, and tons of other obscure, all-over the place bands in other genres. ABH was basically what I’m doing here now, but it’s a lot bigger. I don’t make much money off it. It’s a lot of volunteer work, but I love doing it.
Having booked shows for so long, how did you come to booking and recording at The Lab exactly?
Carol Bowie, who’s an artist and in the DC indie scene, was running shows at The Murky Upstairs at the time. I went there and we started talking. She told me, “I don’t think I can do this anymore, but I like your vision and focus of giving a safe place for younger bands to play.”
Murky was a safe place, but it was shut down. I was at a loss. I had an art show at the time—I used to do art and music shows together—that was what I really liked to do. Fest Too is sort of a continuation of that.
Basically, Carol told me about this guy Jay Smith, who was in this band, MIDDLE DISTANCE RUNNER. She said he worked at a church that had an art space off of Quaker Lane. I thought to myself, ‘Fuck, Alexandria! Are you kidding me?’
I e-mailed him twice, didn’t get a response, but I was persistent about it. He finally got back to me. I met him in front of the steps here at The Lab, and we had this big conversation. It was more about the big picture; he didn’t just ask what am I trying to do, but why.
No one had really asked me that before, and I told him my vision. He said let’s do a test, so I got do my first show here. It was an art show with seven bands playing, and it went great even though people didn’t really know about this place.
It never rubbed me the wrong way about them being a church. I actually work for them now. They’re great people, they really support artists. The whole church is basically an art church, it supports artists. They are Christians, but it’s been eye-opening for me. A lot of DIY artists and activists have always used church spaces for decades now, but I never knew about a church space that actually helped run the program. Not only that, but they helped me develop the program and open up a bunch of different things like the open-mic nights, the studio and rehearsal space, The Lab All Ages collective, and everything.
At the time, I was working a full-time job while running ABH. I started thinking, ‘I’m 30 now. If I’m really going to make this work, I need to quit my day job and just be 100 percent dedicated to this program.’ It’s what I did, and it’s been about two years now. I’m super happy. I plan to keep doing it until there’s no one left to walk through these doors.
What’s this year’s Fest Too going to be like? What are some of the workshops you have planned so far?
First, I want to explain how the process of picking bands went. What’s different about this year is the main goal of Fest Too 2014 was having the community put it on. That stemmed from the Lab All Ages collective working with promoters and volunteers. This year we had a selection of coordinators. We have a workshop coordinator, Lisa Smith, who is the director of Convergence. Alex Heinz, local activist and wordsmith—as I like to call him—he’s our benefit show and promotion coordinator. Christina Perry, [who is also] the Art Gallery Coordinator at Convergence, she’s our Art Coordinator.
The theme for art this year is collaboration in the community and working together. We rolled out a call saying anyone can do whatever they want in any form of media, as long as the art project is done as a pair or bigger. We’re trying to get artists to work together to work bigger projects.
That vision is set to really make what Fest Too will look like. For example, ECHO, who is a local folk/hip-hop artist, is doing a lantern project. We were able to open up space this year, so we can have these groups of artists come and make lanterns from now up until Fest Too, where we’ll put them up in the trees around the street and we’ll light them up. It’s going to be awesome.
The workshops this year we’re keeping with the theme of collaboration. We had our first Fest Too meeting the other day and discussed what were some of the kinds of workshops we’d want to see. Everyone named some and wrote them down, so it’s our job to make them happen.
So far we’ve got a Vegan workshop, how to book a show, bike repair, and conflict resolution, which is going to be sick. I think we’re planning eight to 10 workshops. I think a lot of them are going to be educational, whereas last year they were more hands-on. A lot of the workshop coordinators are professionals, so it’s going to be good.
Everything about Fest Too this year is going to be bigger. I always thought we were really organized, but it’s going to be to the tee this year. The [amount of] people behind it is overwhelming. So many people want to help out and volunteer. It’s really special to me.
One of our main goals every year is trying to feed everyone for free. The benefit shows being put on leading up to Fest Too raises awareness for the festival and money for our food budget. We take donations for food, but last year we were able to feed everyone and had a bit leftover.
The festival is the epitome of DIY. We’re starting with no budget, and it’s made by running a show and saving the proceeds. That concept is kind of outdated you’d think, but it works and that’s really the whole point of the festival. Some people get into booking shows thinking there can be a lot of money to be made in this, but there’s no money behind this specific program. It’s all done through donations and benefit shows.
What about the bands playing? How was the submission process done this year compared to the last two?
The first year, we basically had to beg bands to play. We were kind of staggering. We put the whole festival together in three months.
Year two, we had a couple of people ask to play, but we still asked some bands to play. It was great; we had a bunch of bands from RVA, NOVA, DC, and some others [from] out of town.
This year, I wanted to make it a bit simpler, so we just sent out submission forms to see who’d want to play. In three weeks, we received 160 submissions. It was overwhelming, but in a good way. I formed a Fest Too band committee made up of six people who I believed would be non-biased and would really listen to these bands and have a good, strong ethic background with eclectic music taste. I don’t want to say their names, but none of them were coordinators. It was someone from Richmond, one from Minnesota, and four others from this area.
They had a tough job. They had to listen to all of these bands and only pick five or six. We felt it was fair this way.
We had over 100 submissions from Virginia, DC, and Maryland and about 50 out-of-town bands from Florida all the way up to New York, which was crazy. A bunch of bands from [Pennsylvania] applied. I don’t know what’s going on up there, but there were about 30 submissions from PA alone, from Lancaster to Philly to Pittsburgh area.
Some of my favorite bands are playing this year, so I’m super stoked. I’m excited for ECHO. He’s one of my favorite people and a great artist. LINES&LIES—I’ve been working on their record for a while now, and [I am] stoked. Nathan from OKLAHOMA CAR CRASH is gonna put out his record around that time. I’m really stoked to see SKULLKID; I wasn’t sure if they were even a band anymore, to be honest. I meant to call them to make sure they knew they got picked. TRUMAN is also going to be rad, awesome guys. I’m also excited for some of my other favorite bands like WALK THE PLANK, MOBIUS STRIP, CLOSE TALKER…I’m stoked for everyone.
What’s really cool is all the bands I’ve never heard before that are playing. That’s what I really liked about the submissions this year, because we’ll get to see all these bands that have heard about The Lab and really want to play this festival.
LIL HUFFY and DON’T LOOK DOWN, I had never heard of before, but they applied. I’ve listened to them since and am excited to see them. ALL THINGS NULL AND VOID, they’re a younger high school band from Alexandria; they kind of sound like RADIOHEAD and THE BEACH BOYS. They’re just sick. Really, really good.
Harry from SUNDIALS is going to play an acoustic set. The acoustic acts are going to be primo this year. ELLA SOPHIA and her band MAKESHIFT SHELTERS are going to play, RACHEL KLINE, NOISY GHOST, STEVE ASTRA, they’re all going to be awesome. QUEER ROCKET is going to be awesome as well.
Million dollar question right here. Dan ABH, what’s your real name?
My birth name is Daniel Dwayne Norsworthy. I just want to go on record and say I’ve never said in any kind of publication or interview my last name. My friends and a bunch of kids are going to have a field day with that one. That is a million dollar question.
For more information on Fest Too 2014, be sure to “like” their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter and Tumblr, and come out to show your support June 26th through 28th at The Lab All Ages.